The R Word

Fundamentalists here and abroad have been giving religion a bad rap lately, and so-called militant atheists have used the opportunity to take up the offensive. But according to prominent sociologist Robert N. Bellah, both sides have it wrong: they are mistaken about what religion actually is.

Robert Bellah

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In our current atmosphere of cultural polarization, the term religion has become highly contested. Just how contested was brought home to me in April 2006, when, during a public lecture I gave at the University of Montana in Missoula, a man in the audience sharply questioned my very use of the word. I said that I was simply following a long history of usage, that I knew that some people contrast spirituality, which they see as good, with religion, which they believe is bad, but that I had never found that dichotomy helpful, as spirituality until recently was always considered an aspect of religion, not a rival to it. But he was adamant. Religion, he insisted, is a terrible thing and if I didn’t want to use the term spirituality, I should think of some new word. Like what? I queried. He had no answer but insisted I come up with one.

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